RESTAURANTS : Shanglai Kechuan 上來客饌

By Ian Bartholomew  /  STAFF REPORTER

Fri, Jan 15, 2010 - Page 14

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Miaoli County is a stronghold of Hakka culture and the town of Dahu (大湖), which is probably best known as the source for Taiwan’s best strawberries, has, unsurprisingly, many Hakka restaurants. In the center of town, across from the main tourist center, the Dahu Winery (大湖酒莊) and Strawberry Museum (草莓博物館), is Shanglai Kechuan (上來客饌), an unpretentious Hakka restaurant that serves up good Hakka food for a very reasonable price.

Located on the second floor above a convenience store, the curtain windows provide an excellent view of the busy town center, and there is an appealing absence of ostentatious Hakka or strawberry-related paraphernalia. At the main entrance, a photo of Shanglai Kechuan’s chef together with Cheng Yen-chi (鄭衍基), better known as Ah-Chi-Shi (阿基師), Taiwan’s very own celebrity chef, testified to the serious aspirations of the restaurant.

Celebrity chefs and celebrity signatures can be misleading, but in the case of Shanglai Kechuan (上來客饌) the food does not disappoint. With many unusual dishes on the menu, the extremely friendly and helpful staff come in handy.

Starting with the Hakka basics, the first dish was a plate of Hakka-style flat rice noodles (客家板條, NT$60), a simple dish that has been subject to much abuse by noodle stalls that serve it up as a soggy, stogy mess in a glutinous and over-seasoned sauce. At Shanglai Kechuan the noodles were plump and tender, but still al dente, and the sauce was light and tasty, with the flavor of the shallots, dried shrimp and dried mushrooms coming through distinctly.

Unlike run-of-the-mill regional restaurants, especially those in tourist centers such as Dahu, Shanglai strives to put its own spin on traditional Hakka dishes. While it caters to the tourist trade with dishes such as fried fish with strawberries (草莓魚片, NT$250), which is nothing more than a culinary gimmick, there are also more serious, if not such audacious, attempts to create flavors that reinterpret Hakka standards.

Dry-fried pig’s intestine (乾扁肥腸, NT$250) was an unusual take on Hakka cuisine’s love of pig offal, and a change from the ubiquitous large intestine fried with ginger (薑絲大腸, NT$180), which was also available. Another dish of interest was the fried fish with plum sauce (梅汁魚片, NT$230), which uses local pickled plums to flavor a thick sweet and sour sauce that coats the lightly battered fish. The strong taste of the plums may not be to everybody’s liking, but it certainly deserved high marks for effort. The flavorsome xiancao (仙草) tea which is served with meals has a subtlety of flavor that made it more than palatable, unlike the overwhelming sweet and viscous drink it becomes at many drink stalls. Xiancao is also used in one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, xiancao chicken soup (仙草雞湯, NT$250), which has a delightful lushness and fragrance.

While there are certainly trendier Hakka options available, Shanglai Kechuan offers good food at reasonable prices — without sacrificing the spirit of innovation.

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